Homeowners and businesses can soon get some help keeping their homes from burning down to ashes the next time an ember storm hits town.

Navajo County last week accepted a $270,000 state/federal grant to help people Firewise their properties.

People can apply for the money and the state and county will pay about 90% of the cost of thinning dangerous concentrations of brush on their properties.

The project will hopefully help prevent Show Low. Pinetop and other communities from going the way of Paradise, California. The whole community burned to the ground, mostly because embers from a wildfire still two miles away set the heavy, neighborhood concentrations of brush and tree thickets on fire.

The spot fires started by the embers quickly overwhelmed firefighters. Fires in one overgrown lot spread quickly down the whole block — taking out most of the town. The flames spread so fast that 85 people were killed either hunkered down in their houses or attempting to flee.

One regional survey concluded that Show Low and Pinetop both face a higher risk from wildfires than did Paradise.

Navajo County and the City of Show Low are both supporting the grant to the county’s emergency management department.

The county must spend the $270,000 before 2024. The grant will cover up to 70% of the cost of the thinning and Firewise projects. The county will pay 20% and the homeowner or lot owner will pay the final 10%.

However, the grant also includes a maximum cost per acre — which might not fully cover the cost on some parcels.

The grant comes in the midst of the ongoing shift in the regional strategy for reducing the risk of wildfires in a forest where a century of fire suppression has increased tree densities more than tenfold. A decade-long drought has compounded the impact of dramatically increased tree densities.

The Forest Service has labored for a decade in hopes of partnering with a re-invented timber industry to thin the thickets of small trees that have dramatically increased the odds of a town-destroying crown fire. However, this year the Forest Service abandoned the effort to find a single large contractor and opted for a more piecemeal approach. The Forest Service will continue to award thinning and logging contracts to the existing mills and contractors in the White Mountains. However, for high priority watersheds and areas near forested communities, the Forest Service will rely more heavily on federal money and partners like Navajo County, towns and cities.

The shift will make it even more critical for homeowners to Firewise their properties, since it will take longer to thin enough of the forest to reduce the risk of catastrophic crown fires. Those fires can throw burning embers one to three miles in front of the flaming front.

Studies show that the embers can readily start a fire on a single overgrown lot that will spread to every house on the block. Paradise clearly demonstrated the danger. Whole blocks burned after one or two homes with uncleared lots caught fire. Once a house catches fire, it can set neighboring homes and brush on neighboring lots on fire from radiant heat alone. On the other hand, Firewised public buildings and businesses survived the firestorm.

The same thing happened during the Yarnell Fire. Studies showed that most of the homes that survived the fire had been Firewised, while most of the unprepared homes burned. The flames also killed 19 Prescott wildlands firefighters attempting to make their way through chapparal to protect the community.

The Firewise approach removes brush and small trees very close to the home – and the limbs of larger trees that overhang roofs. The Firewise process can leave large trees – but remove the brush and small trees that would allow flames to climb up into the lower branches of the bigger trees.

For information on applying for a grant, you can contact Gene Beaudoin (gbeaudoin6637@gmail.com) or the Navajo County Department of Emergency Management at 100 East Code Talkers Drive, South Highway 77, P.O. Box 668, Holbrook (928) 524-4163.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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